I must start out my review of Janis: Little Girl Blue with a confession: I've never really known that much about Janis Joplin. I mean, sure, I know she's one of the more famous members of the "27 Club" of musicians who dies at that young age, and songs like "Piece of My Heart" anchor the needle-drop soundtracks of countless movies set in the late '60s. But Janis, the person, hasn't gotten nearly the attention that other blues-rock icons of her era have.
Amy J. Berg's documentary goes some distance towards rectifying this lapse, and none too soon, either. If she were alive, Joplin would be into her 70s now; most of the people who knew her are. Berg makes the most of what may be one of the last opportunities to sit down and ask them to tell their stories about Joplin.
She also draws heavily on Joplin's own journals and scrapbooks, illustrating many points of the singer's life with pictures she'd saved. Cat Power gives voice to the words, her Atlanta drawl blending with Joplin's own East Texas twang we hear in archival footage.
The result of all this is a pretty by-the-numbers biography, leading from Joplin's high school days in Port Arthur, through the rise of her career, her struggles with drug addiction, and her untimely end. Even if you come in knowing very little about her, like I did, Berg presents the story clearly and succinctly.
More importantly, she avoids the temptation to indulge in lurid or prurient flourishes. This is no E! True Hollywood Story, with an ominous score leading up to the next dramatic cliffhanger, although without commercial breaks it would be hard to pull that style off anyway. A more dangerous mistake would be to go the way of Amy, drooling over every morsel of juicy gossip while at the same time moralizing against that sort of exploitation. The closest it comes is the rumors that she and Dick Cavett had been more intimately acquainted than a talk show host and his guest, but he bats them neatly away.
Maybe it's easier to avoid that sort of approach with Joplin; the paparazzi culture hadn't taken hold in the '60s the way it had by the time Winehouse came around. But it seems to run deeper than that. Janis feels thoroughly honest and warm and generous. It's a bunch of people gathered together to tell their old stories about the young woman who touched all their lives, and who was so tragically taken away.
To some extent, this is a smaller version of Berg's signature style. Her documentaries, up to this point, have generally been concerned with child abuse, usually in a religious context. That's obviously much harder material than a simple biography, but Berg is known for handling it with tact, avoiding exploitation, and letting the facts speak for themselves. But even without such horrors to contend with, she is wise enough to seek out the humanity of her subject, rather than exploiting her fame. Berg may win no awards for innovation or style, but she deserves one for compassion and grace.
Rating: 3 out of 5